LITURGY of the PALMS
LITURGY of the PASSION
Though still commonly called Palm Sunday, in modern liturgical practice the Sunday before Easter Day is referred to as ‘The Sunday of the Passion’. This is because it is the first liturgical observance in the season of Holy Week and Easter when a Gospel narrative of the sufferings (passion) of Jesus is read. The older title is not lost, however. This Sunday is unique in the Lectionary because it prescribes two Gospels, and the first of these -- for the Liturgy of the Palms – tells the story of Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem for the Passover. Riding on a donkey, and greeted with enthusiasm by a crowd waving palm branches, it is traditionally described as his ‘triumphal entry’.
It is only after modern worshippers have enacted this scene by taking part in their own procession, that they listen to the first Passion narrative of Holy Week – usually read or sung in a dramatic form by a number of different voices. Though this second Gospel, whether in the full or the abbreviated form, is much longer, the first is no less crucial in establishing the shape of our journey to Easter. On Palm Sunday we begin with triumph, but the triumph is short lived – and hollow. The Bible readings for the days that follow reflect the rising tension, and contention, that surrounds Jesus. It culminates in the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday -- his betrayal, trial and death.
It is vitally important to see that in this intervening period, his enemies not merely gain the upper hand; in the world’s terms, they are completely victorious. What better outcome for those who see Jesus as a radical traitor to their faith, and a threat to their political security, than that he should be killed in the brutal way reserved for the worst of criminals? And what greater evidence of his missionary failure, than that his most loyal disciples abandon him in fear and wretchedness, and even deny that they ever knew him? We need to grasp the depth of the degradation, pain and failure, to which Jesus is subjected, together with the strength of his unwavering obedience to God, in order properly to understand the shallowness of his ‘triumphal’ entry on Palm Sunday.
The fact that there are two Gospel readings, and the second one is so long, naturally deflects attention for the other readings. Yet both serve to amplify the meaning of the passion. In the Old Testament lesson, Isaiah speaks with the voice of the ‘Suffering Servant’, the ancient harbinger of Christ: “I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. . . therefore I have not been disgraced. . . and I know that I shall not be put to shame” The Epistle is drawn from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, a brilliant post-Resurrection summation of the Christian faith. Though rich in theology, this passage is so poetic, it has the character of a hymn. Its opening line, however, presents us with a very great challenge. By the mighty act of Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Day, God does not undo or reverse the horrible reality of the Crucifixion. Rather, God transforms it, showing us, contrary to our normal human standards, where true victory is to be found.
This year, unhappily, we cannot re-enact the triumphal procession, or make a journey to the Cross on Good Friday. Yet by reading and reflecting carefully on the scriptures, we can still do our best to follow Paul’s opening injunction: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”. The key word is ‘Let’. Deprived of the aid that corporate worship gives us, and especially the sacrament, persisting with a Christian life is undoubtedly harder. Still, whether we can go to church or not, our spiritual task is always to find the grace to make the mind of Christ our own.
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Christ Church Morningisde
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